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Jay O’Callahan: Appreciations

Renowned storyteller and teacher Jay O'Callahan uses the technique of "appreciations" to improve performance without deflating egos.

One of the greatest storytellers in the world, Jay O’Callahan, travels with his stories and runs a series of storytelling workshops to help aspiring storytellers (and experienced masters) hone their craft. Jay is also a pioneer of Appreciations, a technique to improve the skills of storytellers without any demoralizing consequences. “Appreciations” are a unique form of feedback that help creative professionals focus on developing their strengths.
Time Magazine describes O’Callahan as “a man of elegance, wit, and poetry.” The Washington Post cites his one-man stories as “first rate theater.” O’Callahan is a master of his craft. As he develops his own stories and those of others, he insists on a method known as “sharing appreciations.”Here’s the concept behind appreciations: Having just shared a story (or, in other contexts, a presentation, idea, etc…), you would go around and ask people to comment on the elements they appreciate. After hearing the aspects of your story that people appreciate most, you are likely to emphasize those components more (and thus de-emphasize the other components that are not appreciated).

It is clear that O’Callahan’s approach spans beyond storytelling. O’Callahan explains, “It is strange that, in our culture, we are trained to look for weaknesses. When I work with people, they are often surprised when I point out the wonderful crucial details – the parts that are alive.” O’Callahan goes on to suggest that, “if our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose the intuition to notice the beauty.”

Sometimes someone will say, ‘I just want to know how to improve, not what is good.’ People think that pointing out faults is the only way to improve.

Of course, the contrarian view to Jay O’Callahan’s approach is that more direct feedback and criticism might help one “cut to the chase.” One member of the Behance team attended a workshop and explained some initial frustrations, “I tend to like hearing ‘this is what you did well, and this is what didn’t work.’ At first, I was frustrated as I tried to figure out, from the appreciations that I received, what was noticeably missing in my stories. However, toward the end, I noticed the appreciations molding my stories.”

O’Callahan would likely argue the merits of appreciation-based-feedback in all creative realms. “People need to relax to be able to disover. Our unconscious won’t come forward and help us see things when we are too logical and focused on criticism. …Sometimes someone will say, ‘I just want to know how to improve, not what is good.’ People think that pointing out faults is the only way to improve. This is an ancient way of thinking! Appreciations are not about being polite. They are about pointing out what is alive. The recipient must take it in, incorporate it.”

Appreciations may be more difficult to give than constructive criticism. “Everyone thinks they can tell you what is good. But, no, it takes years to be able to say, ‘that phrase is fresh, that was a lovely image, sheets on the bed like snow covered mountains, lovely.’ …It is hard to get people to pay attention to that skill.”

Comments (4)
  • Guest

    As a designer, I really try to practice this in my work…and life. This was a really inspirational article.

  • twright

    Also a designer…and i’m also tired of constant critical tirades. may just be where i work, but appreciations concept makes sense. reminds me of the “build on your strengths” trend in business motivation books…

  • Guest

    we do this all the time: Three ups and three downs. Gotta have downs though. If you don’t paint the white you can’t see the black.

  • Guest

    “taram pam pam”

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